The season began for the Mercer women's basketball team with plenty of questions and a lot of new faces.
It ended -- the regular-season portion at least -- with a Southern Conference title.
The Bears are co-champions with Chattanooga after beating Furman 64-62 on Saturday to finish 22-7 overall and 12-2 in the conference. The Bears earn the conference tournament's No. 1 seed based on the tiebreaker -- the teams' record against the third-place team, which was Samford. Mercer swept Samford during the regular season, while Mocs and Bulldogs split.
In a back-and-forth battle with Furman, the Bears trailed 62-61 with 17.6 seconds left after a 3-pointer from Furman's Cierra Carter. But Mercer's Kahlia Lawrence answered by scoring two of her 34 points to put the Bears back on top with 11 seconds left. Susie Gardner's team then got the stop it needed, and Sydni Means hit 1-of-2 free throws with 1.9 seconds left to seal the win and set off a celebration at Hawkins Arena.
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THREE WHO MATTERED
Lawrence: The sophomore hit 16-of-29 shots, including both of her 3-point tries, and surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career. She added five rebounds.
KeKe Calloway: The Mary Persons product scored seven of her 10 points in the second half and hit two 3-pointers.
Alex Williams: The sophomore scored six points and had seven huge rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.
Young team no more: Mercer's roster includes seven freshmen, six sophomores and one junior college transfer, along with a new coaching staff for Gardner to work with. But the Bears went 10-3 in games decided by single digits.
Strong finish continues: The Bears were 6-5 after a loss to Southern Illinois in December, but they went 16-2 the rest of the season.
Dominance through the conference: Mercer split with East Tennessee State and Chattanooga but swept the other five teams in the conference.
A long time coming: The Bears' conference title is the program's first since the 1991-92 season, when Mercer won the New South Women's Atlantic Conference title.
THEY SAID IT
Gardner on the win and the title: "It was such a back-and-forth game. It was four points, one point. When their kid hit the 3, I said, ‘Oh, this is gonna be tough.’ And then, 'Give the ball to Kahlia.' I’m just so happy for our kids. They’re such a good group of kids, and they worked hard. We’ve won a lot of close games. Furman is a great basketball team, a great basketball team, very well-coached by Jackie (Carson), and we were really fortunate to come out. I’m happy for our kids. I’m happy for my staff, our brand new staff, and then, of course, for the awesome fans that were here to celebrate with us. It probably hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s an amazing feeling, I will say that.”
Gardner on Lawrence’s performance: “We kept running the same play, and I kept saying, ‘Should we change our offense?’ And it kept working. We ran the same play over and over and over again. And everyone in the gym knew on that last sideline play that it was going to Kahlia, and she had been short on a few shots, and I think a little bit of fatigue had set in. So during one of the timeouts, I said, ‘You’re short, just lift it up a little bit.’ And another big shot for Kahlia. But it wasn’t just her. Everybody contributed.”
Lawrence on the win: “I’m just so proud of my team. I’m glad that we pulled it through because we were down most of the game, and it was a fight to the end. I’m just happy we pulled it out.”
Lawrence on the championship: “It just says we have heart. We believe in each other. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our coaches. And we have such good chemistry. We work so well on the court and off the court, and that just brings us success.”
Mercer will face UNC Greensboro at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday in Asheville, North Carolina, in the first round of the conference tournament.